During the 34th Regular Caricom meeting in Chaguaramas in July, 15 Caricom states agreed to seek reparations for slavery and the genocide of native peoples from European countries.
The decision has been nearly 30 years in the making according to St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves. Gonsalves has been a steadfast campaigner for the cause. For the past few months, he has been lobbying Caricom heads of government to put reparations on their agenda.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Gonsalves explained that it was he who contacted the human rights law firm Leigh Day & Co. The firm will be representing Caricom.
Leigh Day & Co recently won the case of the Kenyan Mau Mau rebels who were tortured by the British government in the 1950s and 60s. The Mau Mau survivors were awarded US$21.5 million. Gonsalves said, however, Caricom was not wholly influenced by the Mau Mau ruling.
"For about 30 or so years there's been a movement from the grassroots and civil society, among intellectuals and professionals, making claims for reparations for native genocide and slavery. There was no particular impetus," said Gonsalves. He added that there were several precedents for reparations among Native Americans in the US, the Maoris in the Australia, and Jews in Germany.
Three months ago, the St Vincent and the Grenadines National Reparations Committee was formed. The committed is led by attorney Jomo Thomas. Similar organisations also exist in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Jamaica and Suriname. Other Caricom member states have pledged to form reparations committees while a regional reparations commission has also been formed. Barbadian Prime Minister Freundel Stuart currently leads the commission. Other members of the commission include Gonsalves, Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, and the presidents of Haiti, Guyana and Suriname, Michel Martelly, Donald Ramotar and Desi Bouterse respectively.
Haiti is a "special case" according to Gonsalves and will be afforded attention as such. Following the 1804 Haitian Revolution for independence, Haiti was ordered to pay reparations to France–a massive debt that many believe was unjust and added to the country's turbulent history.
The call for reparations is becoming part of the national conciousness in St Vincent and the Grenadines, said Gonsalves, through radio programmes, public speeches and newspapers. Gonsalves has also written scholarly works on the subject. He is one of many who have tackled the subject, including historian Hilary Beckles. Beckles was invited to speak on the subject at the recent Caricom meeting and present findings from his June publication, Britain's Black Debt: Reparations owed the Caribbean for Slavery and Indigenous Genocide.
Gonsalves added that the call for reparations raised important questions. "From a historical standpoint I understand how Europe underdeveloped the Caribbean. If you read the thesis of Walter Rodney (the book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa) you'll see the parallels. An important question of reconciliation between ourselves and the former colonial powers is raised and that is why I want to see this conversation started in earnest," he said.
Caricom's call for reparations has already come under some criticisms, however. The Inter Press Service reported on July 29 that the Pan Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe has warned Caricom that a "top down approach" to reparations would not aid the Caribbean's indigenous and African descendant populations. The group also stated that the money received by the Mau-Mau rebels was not on par with the torture suffered by the group and urged Caribbean leaders to ensure that grassroots participation guides the quest for reparations.
Chairman of the Emancipation Support Committee, Khafra Kambon said the ESC supported the call for reparations 100 per cent. In a telephone interview with the T&T Guardian Kambon said Caricom was acting on a "feeling from the ground" and needed immense, continued support to make reparations a reality.
"Because this was decision made by governments, doesn't mean that their agreement on it has to be condemned. We think that the most critical thing now is for it to get that grassroots support. This effort cannot be left to government alone. It's up to the people who are concerned about reparations to show the government support. There will be pressure on Caricom to compromise or abandon this cause and to avoid that there has to be a mass movement," he said.
Kambon said reparations were "legally justifiable" and necessary to addressing the legacy of crimes against humanity. "Chattel slavery and native genocide are some of the most critical moral issues of our time. A large body of humanity was degraded by these crimes and continue to suffer the effects of those crimes both at physiological level, because the trauma remains unaddressed, and at a material level, because the world was turned into a very unequal place as an outcome of that."
He added: "Systems have developed to maintain that inequality. Those who were the victims of the crimes continue to suffer the effects of the crimes and those who were beneficiaries continue to reap the benefits."
It is not yet clear how much Caricom would expect the European countries - they have decided to approach Britain, France and the Netherlands - to pay. Gonsalves and the leader of Jamaica's reparations committee, Verene Shepperd, referred to the 1834 �20 million pay-out to British plantation owners after emancipation in an AP article. That sum is equivalent to �200 billion today according to the AP.
Any money received is not going to be handed to individuals, Gonsalves said on Tuesday, but is more likely to go towards economic, social and cultural programmes.
Other cases of reparations:
In 2008 Tasmania (an island state in the Australian Commonwealth) awarded Tasmanian Aborigines �2.2 million in reparations. The awards was distributed in the form of a fund for indigenous children between 106 claimants. The award went to what is refered to as the "stolen generation" when Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families in efforts to foster integration.
In 2010, Native Americans and some black American farmers were awarded US$4.5 billion in reparations. The award included rights to land use which have been overseen by the US government since 1887. The reparations for farmers specifically address discrimination in the awarding of loans and subsidies by the US Department of Agriculture.
In May 2013, the German government agreed to pay nearly US$1 billion to aging Holocaust survivors. The money will be disbursed between 2014 and 2017. During the Holocaust, millions of Jewish people were killed and tortured in concentration camps.
In June 2013, the British government awarded 5,200 Mau Mau rebels with US$21.5 million in reparations. In the 1950s and 60s, many members of the Mau Mau were beaten and even sexually assaulted in efforts to suppress their rebellion against colonialism.